Daniel Stern

Daniel Stern gets a major work-out against type in this frequently funny, occasionally touching, but sometimes flat comedy set in America's cold and cheating heartland.

Daniel Stern gets a major work-out against type in this frequently funny, occasionally touching, but sometimes flat comedy set in America’s cold and cheating heartland. Familiar tube faces, including Patricia Richardson (having a hoot as evil twins), could help bring in the unsure, especially in the fly-over zone pic so witheringly depicts, although “Viva Las Nowhere” is too small-scaled to get the full Vegas treatment. Sweet supporting role for Sherry Stringfield, on the eve of her “ER” return, should bring her more bigscreen attention.

Leaving his urban anxiety far behind, the long-limbed Stern takes on rural neuroses as Frank Jacobs, sad-sack co-owner of the Middle-o’-America Motel and Petting Zoo — a neglected podunk Kansas spot offering dusty rooms and stuffed animals. Frank feels pretty neglected, too, especially where his dreams of C&W stardom are concerned, and he’s not exactly flavor of the decade for his sharp-tongued wife. As played by level-headed sitcom mom Richardson, Helen Jacobs is the kind of beer-swilling trailer park floozy a guy might dream about feeding to the family cougar.In fact, violent thoughts do come into the picture with the arrival of Julie (Lacey Kohl), a blowzy lounge singer who barely makes it through the first number with her boss, country music has-been Roy Baker (James Caan, complete with long gray ponytail, talk-singing his way through several swinging numbers). He boots her out, and Frank scoops her up and takes her home — a move with fatal consequences for a growing number of people, as “Nowhere’s” comedy turns increasingly black.

Thanks to a suspicious mishap, Helen ends up in the family garden, permanently. Frank’s tortured plans to open a nightclub with his new true love are short-lived, however, thanks to the arrival of his wife’s even harder twin sister, Wanda. An endless parade of cops, army buddies and would-be singing stars (including Andy Maton’s funny Baptist banker) also interrupt, and, in the garden, this year’s tomatoes are soon getting more than their fair share of fertilizer.

As long as the pic sticks to its darker edge, the humor comes across as unpredictably quirky. But when helmer Jason Bloom lets the frenetic pace slip, it’s clear that the characters aren’t invested with enough humanity to inspire sympathy. If the guitar tunes sung and strummed by Stern had a little more depth, we might share his whacked-out vision, but Frank’s secret career is treated as a desperate joke, and that dilutes the emotional element.

Fortunately, real poignancy is added by the very appealing Stringfield, as Marguerite, an overlooked barmaid who supports his fantasies — and, as it turns out, has a few of her own, as seen when she picks up a guitar and (through excellent dubbing) croons out a Dolly Parton number.

Rough-hewn pic is appropriately scrubby looking, with Alberta subbing for big sky Kansas locations. Music is well-produced and placed, with several good onstage set pieces.

Here-comes-everybody climax should have been hysterical but ends up deflating the adventure slightly, leading to hasty feel-good finish. Production design has many witty touches, including some garishly photogenic signage.

Viva Las Nowhere

Production

A Franchise Pictures (L.A.) production, in association with Samaha Prods. Produced by Demetri Samaha, Tracee Stanley, Kevin DeWalt, Josh Miller. Executive producers, Elie Samaha, Andrew Stevens. Co-producers, Mark McGarry, Massimo Nouhra, Roma Roth. Directed by Jason Bloom. Screenplay, Richard Uhlig, Steve Seitz.

Crew

Camera (color), James Glennon; editor, Luis Colina; music, Andrew Gross, James Jacobson; music supervisor, Todd Rosenberg, Jeremy Steckler; production designer, Alec Hammond; art director, Cathy Phillips; set decorator, Susan Turner; costume designer, Robert Moore; visual effects, Stevie Ramone; sound (Dolby), Clancey Livingstone; associate producer, Colina, Erik Anderson; assistant director, Rick Tunell; casting, Elizabeth Marx. Reviewed at Seattle Film Festival, June 13, 2001. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Frank Jacobs - Daniel Stern Helen/Wanda - Patricia Richardson Roy Baker - James Caan Marguerite - Sherry Stringfield Julie - Lacey Kohl
With: Larry Reese, Andy Maton, Shaun Johnston, Tim Abell, Daren Christofferson, Skerivet Daramola, Taylor Pardell, Carrie Schiffler.
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